1950s farm matriarch set a high bar

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soybean field at sunset
Farm and Dairy file photo

Because the good Earth needed gentle hands and heart, guiding without a bully whip and for all of these reasons and more, a farm family matriarch was born. Every good life tells a story, and sharing it has always been my motivation in writing.

For those who built farms and families in the 1950s, I have always believed a special magic was planted and nurtured within those foundations.

Mary Eileen Esselburn passed away last week at 91, and the world lost a remarkable, sweet soul. Her obituary in the Ashland County, Ohio, Times-Gazette begins, “And on the 9th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “The farmer needs a caretaker. So God made a farmer’s wife.”

Love story

The life and love story of Eileen and Andy Esselburn is reminiscent of so many of the good people I have been blessed to know in rural circles. They met at a square dance in the early 1950s, and their courtship lasted. And lasted.

Andy wanted to delay marriage until he could be certain of sound finances and a solid equity position to grow a successful farm. Instead of impatiently walking away, Eileen stood firmly beside her chosen fellow, but one day stated an ultimatum for marriage. This was the 1950s, when couples married young with stars in their eyes.

Eileen wanted a marriage and a farm partnership, and in 1956, that journey began, the bride and groom evenly yoked.

Farm family

Eileen milked cows, gathered eggs, cooked endlessly for a constantly hungry crew, handled all the office work that a busy farm requires and tended a large garden. The quiet, hard-working, successful couple was well respected across the region.

As the farm grew, so did their family, with three sons welcomed: Tom, Dave and Bob. This mild-mannered lady was an accomplished pianist, and played the organ at church until the birth of her firstborn.

She was head 4-H advisor, chief chauffeur to many sporting and FFA events, all while remaining a busy farm owner and operator in rural Shreve, keeping a house and garden at their home place near McZena and remaining active in her church, with a strong focus on raising her sons.

“She was a very reserved lady, with a mild temperament, avoiding profanity. However, three teenage boys almost caused her to slip one time,” her obituary reads.

High bar

She handled even the toughest of days on their family farm with kindness and a focused discipline. Over the years, Eileen watched with pride as the Esselburn family grew to include daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

As our lives evolve, demanding days continue to press families; the work is truly never done. I think of the ladies of Eileen Esselburn’s generation with great admiration, because they taught us how to get it all done at a time when there were very few shortcuts in a significantly heavy workload, while also serving a greater good in numerous capacities within their communities.

Eileen was a true lady who set the bar high, and did it all with grace, kindness and a giving heart, quietly setting a remarkable example for all who knew her.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.

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